Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Conservatives Don't Really Like School Choice

Conservatives often claim they are big fans of school choice. I think they're wrong. I don't mean that I want to disagree with them using fluffy progressive liberal arguments. I mean that in the world of conservative values and goals, school choice really doesn't fit. Let me explain.

Resources and Inefficiency

One of the assumptions of every choice system is that a choice system can operate for the same amount of money-- or less-- than the current system. This is clearly false.

Which will be more inexpensive and efficient-- educating 100 students in one school , or educating them in ten separate ten-student schools, each with its own group of administrative employees and each with its own physical plant and infrastructure. "We're in serious financial trouble, so let's take our set of elementary schools and break them into even more elementary schools," said no school board ever.

There are some functions that government can perform more efficiently. Nobody suggests that we open the door to any contractor who wants to set up a competing system of interstate highways. Nor do we open up each new war to bids from any private army that wants to go in there. Okay, actually that one does happen a little, and you'll notice that when it does, things get even more expensive really quickly. And when government does allow a spirit of competition, it doesn't work out all that well. We are still trying to fix the massive disconnect between competing intelligence agencies that made it easy to pull off the 9/11 attacks.

I agree that given infinite resources, a multiple service provider system would look a lot different. But that's not what we've got and it's not what we're ever going to have. School choice requires multiple school systems to live as cheaply as one, and they can't. Yes, there are charters who claim they can do it. So far, they are all liars; any lower operating costs they purport to achieve are the result of simply tossing high-cost students out of the system, and if we're willing to throw away the expensive children, we can make public schools run way cheaper tomorrow.

No, a school choice system is no financial winner. We end up with waste and inefficiency and duplication of services, and we end up with school systems that either don't have enough resources, or we simply soak the taxpayers for more money.

Big Government

Because there are not enough resources to go around, we will need some Wise and Powerful Wizard to divvy them all up. That wizard is going to be the state or federal government. For better or worse, under current market conditions starting a new competing school system to compete with the public system will be like starting a new software company to compete with Microsoft Windows. The cost of admission is way too high unless Big Government gets involved.

The only way to extend the reach of choice schools will be to extend the reach of big government. And since the choice schools will be accepting government money, they will be accepting government oversight. Yes, I know they've battled it back for now, but they will lose that war. The government will declare, as it has with public schools, that it has a responsibility to see that it's money was spent appropriately. Some choice school will get caught doing something spectacularly egregiously stupid, and big gummint will have its opening.

You know what a good example of small, local government is? Locally elected school boards. Yes, many are less than perfect. But at what point did conservatives join the chorus of, "We need to just tell the electorate what to do. It's for their own good."

Competition Does Not Foster Quality Products

I've written about this before, comparing charter schools to cable channels. The big money is in the big markets, so the big players compete for the muddled middle. Education has two particular problems-- there's not much product differentiation, and a big chunk of your market is people who don't really want your product.

The lack of product differentiation (particularly if all schools are using the same CCSS to teach to the same Big Tests) means that the game will belong to the person with the best marketing. Trot out your own examples here (I like Betamax vs. VHS) of superior products that did NOT win the marketplace because they were out-marketed by somebody else.

In a choice system, schools will compete, but not by being the highest quality educators. They'll offer programs that appeal to students who don't find school appealing ("Welcome to No Homework High!!"), and they will offer really cool and glitzy marketing. You may say, "Fine. Let the jerks send their kids to crappy schools and that will just leave my kids at Really Quality High with the other cool kids."

Except. First of all, Really Quality High has to accept you. Every admission's decision will be a marketing decision. If your child is too expensive, we don't want him. If he is going to screw with our scores, we're sending him back to you. Here's your competition-- you will compete with other parents to pull strings, make it rain, and otherwise score your kid a seat at Exclusive High (pro tip: you won't compete by making your kid suddenly smarter or a better student, because you can't do much about those things, and I bet you won't say, "Oh well, you're just not as smart as the Smith kid, so we'll settle for Average Shmoe High.")

And second of all, Really Quality High has to exist. In the early days of cable, there were some really classy channels. I liked Bravo for broadway shows and Arts&Entertainment for its highbrow culture offerings. But there wasn't enough of me to make those approaches profitable, so now Bravo and A&E broadcast the same basic sort of dreck as every other channel.

Competition Does Not Foster Competition

One of my favorite history books is The Robber Barons, a history of the great money-grubbers of the 19th century written by a 1930s-era socialist. Matthew Josephson really wants to hate these guys, but at the same time, he clearly admires them because they are economic collectivists. Rockefeller, Carnegie, et al didn't really have a beef with centralized control of an entire industry, as long as they were the people in charge.

Unbridled competition leads to centralized control. Let, say, the phone company just suck up every other phone company, and you get the telephone monopoly of the 1970s, run by a corporation just as impersonal, uncaring, inefficient, unresponsive and insulated from competition as any sector ever run by Big Gummint. What does it take to keep such monopolistic centralization from happening? Why, hello there Big Gummint!

You think this won't happen in choice schools? Of course it will-- it already is. Pearson is already assembling a vertically integrated powerhouse of Rockefellerian proportions (and do I need to remind you that they aren't even American, that as upset as we were when the Chinese were buying up America bit by bit, Pearson has already done much the same with American education), and in may states, the only charter players are the big players. And like every power centralizer before them, they did not conquer their world simply by being so much better than everyone else. They use money and influence and, when necessary, the tool of Big Government to get their way.

This is not meritocracy in action. This is corporations and big government teaming up to display exactly why conservatives who rail against Big Government have a point.

Caveats and Etc

Are there pockets of charter schools who have avoided all these pitfalls? Absolutely. But look at today's corporate-dominated landscape and tell me if you really think there's room for a small, creative edupreneur.

Do I have ideas for alternatives? You know I do, but this is already running long. But conservatives-- you need to stop promoting school choice, because you don't really want it. You just haven't figured that out yet.


  1. Of course this makes sense -- even Adam Smith addressed it. Adam Smith talked about the Invisible Hand, but he lived in a time when large property owners ran everything so he also advocated for government control to make sure the property owners couldn't have a monopoly. Competition can't exist without government regulations against monopolies. Many conservatives who love Adam Smith don't realize all that he actually said.

  2. Sorry, there is no single best school for all students - as many educators have learned over the last forty years. That's why school districts all over the United States have created new options.
    One of those new options is "teacher led" schools..which by the way often do not have principals because they truly are teacher led. Not every teacher wants to do this, but some definitely do.

  3. After reading "The Bully Pulpit" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, it was obvious why Teddy Roosevelt broke up the huge monopolies of the 19th century and why he had to accomplish this almost alone---well, he did have help from a more independent media than we have today that's now owned by six giant corporations owned by oligarchs like Rupert Murdock. Today, the people only have the Internet and even that's a battlefield.

    When the CEO/owner of a huge corporation becomes too powerful and wealthy, they end up owning and controlling the elected government. This was the way it was before Roosevelt pulled the rug out from beneath the robber barons and allowed the people and their labor unions to have a seat at the table.

    Then everything worked most of the time until after President Reagan introduced trickle down, pour up economics and opened the door for the return of the robber barons of today: for instance, Bill Gates, the Walton family, the Koch brothers, Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg, Rupert Murdock, hedge fund billionaires, etc.

  4. School choice advocates have made the same mistake for years of confusing the commons with markets. Markets do many things extraordinarily well, but selecting a school is not remotely the same as selecting a breakfast cereal, or a car or a computer, where it is possible for a large number of choices to be packed into a fairly small space.

    You simply cannot construct enough schools in close enough proximity to students to have an actual marketplace where competitive pressures lead to improvement. NYC has had effective school choice since Bloomberg took over full control of the system in 2003, and everyone does NOT have a high quality school for their children. If it doesn't work here with a dense population and pervasive public transportation, it doesn't work anywhere.

  5. School choice in it's present manifestation is anything but actual choice. Parents, educators, and communities have no seat at the table where what will be made available to choose from is decided upon and their voices are actively excluded. Currently, profiteers and ideologs are the only ones at that table. Likewise, the "free market" that Choice claims to be has no say or sway in such a system as any influence it might have is denied it. Choice in it's current form is nothing more than a glossy sales pitch cobbled together from the empty calories of propaganda.

  6. Totally agree that school choice is anything but actual choice. The bottom line is that parents shouldn't have to make a choice! Every public school should be a quality school and if we all worked together for the common good, we could probably make it happen.

    Oh and one more thing. As a progressive, I would ask that others of the same ilk call the "other side" what they are: "regressives."

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